Plaisir à trois (1973) and Sinfonía erótica (1980) as well as a film like Eugenie de Sade (1970), Franco’s unique take on Eugenie de Franval. Even films Countess Perverse (1973) and The Sexual Story of O (1984), which weren’t intended as de Sade adaptations are nonetheless distinctly Sadean in nature. Despite its title, Helter Skelter might not have anything to do with Charles Manson, however it has everything to do with the spirit of de Sade with Franco channeling the divine Marquis for one of his most experimental pieces.
“Plotless” is a word often attributed to Franco’s films however in the case of Helter Skelter the term is applicable. There literally is no plot. While not based on any specific de Sade text, the film instead consists of random scenarios inspired by de Sade’s writings. Aside from a very brief instance late in the film, there is no dialogue, however several voice-over narrations reading de Sade quotes are heard throughout the film. One quote in particular,“I abhor nature” makes multiple appearances, with the first quote heard in the film being “…I abhor Nature and I detest her because I know her well. Aware of her frightful secrets, I have fallen back upon myself and I have felt… I have experienced a kind of pleasure in coping her foul deeds.” as spoken by Almani the chemist in de Sade’s Justine. Another Almani quote is heard later in the film “ …disgust with life becomes so strong in the soul that there is not a single man who would want to live again, even if such an offer were made on the day of his death.”,which in the book is actually said right before the first quote. Clearly the first quote has significance. If Franco intended the film to be about anything, it would appear that the films vignettes all depict individuals attempting to corrupt Nature, a quintessential Sadean theme with Nature dictating the libertines principles so is there any act more rebellious or libertine than attempting to offend that which governs?
Setting aside the de Sade influence for a moment, the film could also be read as Franco simply filming his own fantasies and as an actual viewing experience the film can be quite hypnotic, taking place in its own perverse netherworld consisting of sadomasochism, revenge and murder. The film takes a turn for the surreal right away during the first segment, a lesbian liaison between Lina Romay and frequent Franco actress during the One Shot Productions era, Mavi Tienda, thanks to Franco’s bizarre little touches such as Tienda wearing a bright pink fright wig, seen often in Franco’s films of this era and the puzzling use of a green glass head as a prop. The same random and bizarre mood is a constant throughout the entire film, aided greatly by the laid back jazz score along with the lethargic blues guitar cues lifted from the Vampire Blues (1999) soundtrack. Franco also does something interesting in that he utilizes spliced-in footage from other films made around the same time, the biggest chunks taken from Dr. Wong’s Virtual Hell (1999) but there are bits and pieces from Vampire Blues sprinkled in as well. Despite the footage being recycled, it never really comes across as pastiche, particularly the lengthy whipping scene from Dr. Wong’s Virtual Hell as it perfectly fits in with the films de Sade theme and the brief bits from the virtual reality segments taken from the same film and re-used here also take on a different context, that being one of Sadean excess.
Broken Dolls (1999) although the more economic choice would be the “Cravings of the Depraved” set along with Dr. Wong’s Virtual Hell. Helter Skelter may be of limited appeal being one of Franco’s digital efforts however de Sade enthusiasts should find the film of interest. The final de Sade quote heard in the film, the last parts of which are read by Franco himself, “Imperious, choleric, irascible, extreme in everything, with a dissolute imagination the like of which has never been seen, atheistic to the point of fanaticism, there you have me in a nutshell, and kill me again or take me as I am, for I shall not change.” couldn’t have wrapped the film up more perfectly as not only does it sum up de Sade, but portions of it also pertain to Franco’s approach to filmmaking.